'anging at the Ermitazh

Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 30, 2009

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Flag of Russia  , Sankt-Peterburg,
Friday, January 6, 2006

After a fast and furious Moscow visit, it was time to move onto a more cultured and sedate St Petersburg.

In 1700, this area was still occupied by the Swedes, but Peter the Great had decided that a port and navy were essential to Russia's future, so by 1703 the Vikings had been given the boot and a new capital had been founded on what was a pretty unsuitable piece of swamp, the Neva River delta. Now it is no longer the capital, but many Russians consider it the cultural and spiritual capital of their great nation, so no itinerary is complete without a decent stop here.

The Red Express train service connecting us to the old capital didn't exactly make for a relaxing entrance - it was seven hours of bullet train madness starting at 11.59pm, getting us there in the early and still dark hours of the morning after a short and tumultuous sleep. At least it was warmer - only -5C! Nikka, new city guide extraordinaire, diligently collected and delivered our motley group to a surprisingly new and modern guesthouse, and before we knew it we were out sightseeing again in order to make the most of our short time here. Yikes!

First stop was Palace Square - a massive semi-circular area bordered by the Winter Palace on one side and Europe's longest (and possibly most yellow) building on the other. It was formerly occupied by the Russian Army and is actually two buildings linked together by a huge statue-topped archway. Pretty grandiose indeed. In the centre of the square is a massive angel-tipped pedestal called Alexander Column, built in 1812 to commemorate Napoleon's defeat. It was the scene for much military pomp and ceremony, as well as the odd massacre such as Bloody Sunday in 1905 (when the army opened fire on unarmed civilians protesting tsarist policy).

Standing in the square with such amazingly opulent buildings around and the odd team of horses with carriage clip-clopping by, you can just imagine the more elegant era it was all borne of.

We weren't here to daydream however - the Hermitage (Ermitazh in local speak) was our goal. With timing impeccable as usual, we joined the short but ever lengthening queue to enter arguably the most famous art gallery the world has yet seen. It took a little while to get in and once we'd done so, we were pleasantly surprised to find that the entry fees for everyone had been waived for some reason - just for today. Russia, you can be frustrating at times but at others you're just plain nice. Thank you.

From there we had four hours to explore this massive place, chock full of every conceivable form of art, collected from every era down through the ages. As Nikka said, 'the Tsars just had so much money, all they could do was build palaces and buy art' (which we know the serfs didn't agree with in the end). Anyway, the extended collections (there are four other Hermitage cities around the world) now hold dozens of Rembrandts, Renoirs, Matisse's, Gauguin's and Rubens', as well as a few Picassos, Leonardos and Titians. Add a Monet, a Michalangelo and just about every other big name artist from the Renaissance period onwards and you have a priceless collection.

Painting-wise, my favourite had to be good old Hubert Robert, with his 'imaginary landscapes' painted on huge four-metre high canvasses, a number of which adorned the grand 'White Hall' located in one of the corners of the palace complex. An example is provided above, third from the left, next to Michalangelo's 'The Crouching Boy'.

Equally impressive were the collections of Roman, Greek, Assyrian and Egyptian relics. There are literally hundreds of almost complete Roman marble statues and particularly remarkable was the Greek pottery collection dating from circa 500BC, complete and in seemingly immaculate condition. I didn't know much of this survived, let alone intact and all thousands of kilometres away toward the Arctic Circle!

But probably the most incredible thing about the place is the buildings themselves. Made up of three buildings (the Winter Palace, the Small Hermitage and the Large Hermitage) every room, hall, staircase and floor is a work of art - designed in the most sumptuous manner conceivable. I spent a lot of the four hours gazing at ceilings, chandaliers or parquetry floors as opposed to the art contained within the four walls. Absolutely amazing.

By the end of my time here I was tired, hungry, disoriented and my legs were shaking uncontrollably from fatigue. I had only seen a small proportion of the estimated 3 million works of art estimated to be on display here, but it was enough to ensure my cultural fill for the time being. And that only left the rest of St Pete's to see. Sheesh!

Next entry -> around town for Russian Christmas Eve

Word from the Wise #55

"Success is getting what you want. Happiness is liking what you get."
H.Jackson Brown
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